Opportunities for upcycling abound with food waste pervasive across the industry

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 26 No. 4
Volume 26
Issue 4

Here’s how food companies and ingredient suppliers are adding value through upcycling.

© Nguyen Khanh Vukhoa / Stock.adobe.com

© Nguyen Khanh Vukhoa / Stock.adobe.com

Waste occurs throughout the supply chain. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 40% of all food in the U.S. goes uneaten, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 95% of all food waste ends up in landfills, causing methane emissions during decomposition.1 The amount of food waste is so immense that some estimates state that reducing food waste by 15% could feed more than 25 million people every year. For the average person, reducing waste means things like eating your food before it spoils, composting, buying and using less plastic and paper products, as well as thrifting clothes and buying used furniture. For large-scale manufacturers, reducing waste is more difficult, but there does exist an economy for the transformation of waste products. And while some things like “ugly” produce are very edible and fit for consumption, not all waste is fit for human consumption—yet.

Upcycling, as defined by the Upcycled Food Association (UFA; Denver, CO), is the use of ingredients that would otherwise “not have gone to human consumption, [that] are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.” As many of you will recognize, this is not a new concept. Angie Crone, UFA’s CEO, acknowledges as much.

“Communities have been doing this since time immemorial. Companies, in particular, have been looking at waste valorization for decades,” Crone explains to Nutritional Outlook. “Upcycling food…is an ancient tradition based on the philosophy of using all of what you have. It’s about doing more with less, and elevating all food to its highest and best use. That said, as we’ve become more removed from our food, most consumers are blind to the waste that happens.”

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The shift from local to global economies has in many ways made upcycling less practical. A good example of this is the brewing industry and brewer’s spent grain (BSG). The malted barley used to brew beer is all but discarded once the beer is made. This was not always the case.

“Imagine a world where beer was very local, it wasn’t pasteurized, it wasn’t distributed to all of the world as it is today, and the BSG at the time was used as an ingredient in making bread,” explains Jacqueline Hochreiter, global director of sustainability for EverGrain (St. Louis). “So, it didn’t always get disposed of or go to waste. Fast-forward to the global food system, one in which we do see profit prioritized over sustainability, and the brewing sector reorganized itself to treat BSG as a waste product.”

Consumers buy their favorite six packs of beer and most of the time don’t even think about how it’s made or where it comes from. Similarly, dietary supplements such as herbs and botanicals, and fish oils, have a natural source from which they came, but the way in which they are consumed can create a disconnect for the consumer with the source material. Upcycling seeks to make the most of these resources, and the motivation to upcycle is growing.

“Growth [of upcycled food and beverage products] is being driven by both consumers who are becoming more aware of the food waste problem and supply chain vulnerabilities laid bare by the pandemic, and by food companies that recognize the waste produced during the food-manufacturing process,” says Crone.

And while upcycling is not novel, the standardization and the marketing behind upcycled products is relatively new.

Side Streams, Not Waste Streams

Technological advancements have made upcycling possible where it previously was not. This has created an influx of upcycled products and ingredients that are eye-catching and noteworthy. However, it’s important to acknowledge forms of upcycling that have existed for some time, demonstrating that it is a sustainable business model both for company coffers and the environment.

The fish oil industry is a good example of this. The lay person may not realize that omega-3 fish oil is, for the most part, manufactured from a byproduct of the industry that makes fish meal, which is used as feed for aquaculture facilities. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), aquaculture facilities raising fish and other animals feed them a diet that consists, at least in part, of fish meal and fish oil. While 25%-30% of the fish meal and fish oil comes from fish byproducts, “the rest comes from forage fish caught specifically for the industry, such as anchoveta from the Peru and Chile fishery, the most popular fish caught around the world.”2

NOAA states that in 2016, 12% of the global fish catch was reduced to fish meal and oil, with 70% of that going to aquaculture. When it comes to the omega-3 fish oil industry, manufacturers will buy the crude oil pressed out of the fish meal and process it further to raise the levels of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids and make it acceptable for human consumption. While this is now a standard practice, there was a time when most of this oil was simply burned for energy because it did not have the same applications it does today. Brands like VivoMega (Kristiansund, Norway), which is part of the GC Rieber Group, take a crude fish oil that, best-case scenario, has an omega-3 content, including EPA and DHA, of 30%, and concentrate it to 85% total omega-3s.

Since the omega-3 fish oil industry is so well established thanks to brands like VivoMega, crude fish oil is no longer a byproduct but a side stream. “We call them side streams because they have value. We can apply them to the food chain again,” says Simon Riise, business development and sales manager at VivoMega. “It’s a not a definition question, more of a perception, a thinking around sustainability and how we incorporate that into our operation. It helps when you change how you name the products, perceive the utilization of them.”

Riise points out that while raw material utilization is a huge aspect for brands like VivoMega to reduce waste, there is a bigger picture to consider. For example, while, yes, the company uses what it calls a side stream of another industry, it is still the company’s responsibility to ensure that the crude was made from fish sourced by environmentally conscious fisheries but also that the quality of the crude is up to par. “That has been one of our strengths over time,” Riise explains. “We have worked very closely with specific producers in South America to apply our knowledge in terms of what we need of an oil and to support them through quality systems and improve the quality of the oil so that it can meet the standards for human consumption and the best-possible-quality oil fit for purpose.”

From there, the crude needs to get to the company’s facility. For this, VivoMega uses vessels that take the bulk crude to its facility located right on the coastline, replacing some 30 truckloads of goods. This same facility then utilizes seawater from the coast to cool its machinery and then repurposes that steam for energy. Of course, the concentration of the crude oil leaves behind its own waste, which VivoMega also repurposes, with two-thirds going back to the food chain as either feed for aquaculture or as fertilizer in agriculture. The remaining one-third can be used as biogas. All the while, 75% of these side streams are sold locally, offsetting carbon that would have otherwise been emitted during shipping.

What all this demonstrates is that upcycling a waste product is only one aspect of sustainability. It’s important to create a system of efficiencies that justify the resources required to make a different product. Does it make sense for what Riise calls the “triple bottom line”: the people, the planet, and profits?

Innovations in Upcycling

Fisheries are just one of many industries that utilize millions of tons of natural resources and therefore produce millions of tons of waste. The brewing industry, mentioned earlier, is another one, which creates millions of tons of waste with BSG, a byproduct that typically either goes on to be used as animal feed or is disposed of in landfill. It also presents a major opportunity for brands who are willing to invest in research and development to devise ways to upcycle the byproduct. BSG is rich in fiber and protein, therefore very nutritious, but it’s also highly volatile and susceptible to bacterial growth. So how do you stabilize it and scale production to create a viable product?

EverGrain, which is an AB InBev company, has figured out how to make a high-quality protein from the BSG left behind from its brewing. The company has been working on the extraction technology to turn BSG into EverPro, a high-quality protein with a great deal of versatility, since 2013. Recently, EverGrain opened its first full-scale facility collocated with AB InBev’s St. Louis brewery.

According to Hochreiter, taking one brand’s BSG out of the 400 brands and 200 breweries the company owns, EverGrain is able to process 7,000 tons of protein in that one facility. This helps avoid a third of a trillion pounds of food waste every year when at full capacity. A life cycle assessment also found that EverGrain is responsible for five-times-lower carbon emissions than animal-based protein, 20-times land use avoided, as well as the lowest water usage compared to other proteins, plant or animal.

“The implication for the company is not so much decarbonization of the corporation, because we’re actually adding incremental carbon even though it’s very low; it’s more about the carbon avoided vis-à-vis the consumer choice today,” Hochreiter says. The company is reducing huge amounts of waste while also providing consumers with an alternative source of protein that is not only high-quality but less resource-intensive compared to other forms of proteins.

Of course, EverGrain is not the only company to see the value in BSG. ReGrained, for example, is taking BSG and turning it into consumer packaged goods such as baking mixes, puffed snacks, pastas, and bars that tout high fiber content as well as sustainability. Given the amount of BSG that leaves the brewing industry, the potential for innovation and new product development is high.

Other potential resources for upcycling are cacao fruit and cascara.

The chocolate industry is huge, and because of this cacao fruits are among the most-harvested yet most-discarded fruits on the planet since they are just harvested for the bean. According to Crone at UFA, every year 14 million tons of cacao fruit are harvested to make chocolate, and because the bean only makes up 30% of the fruit, 70% of the cacao fruit is thrown away, creating 10 million tons of waste. The discarded parts of the fruit are not without value as they are highly nutritious with antioxidants, electrolytes, fiber, calcium, and other nutrients. As such, major chocolate brands such as Nestlé, Barry Callebaut, and Hershey’s have already either launched or invested in products made from upcycled cacao fruit.

Crone also points to the massive opportunity for upcycling in the coffee industry. “Coffee is made from the seeds inside a coffee cherry, and cascara is the outside of the coffee cherry. For every 2 tons of coffee cherries harvested, 1 ton of cascara is discarded,” she explains.

One brand, called Riff, has developed immune-boosting energy drinks using the discarded coffee fruit. According to a white paper published by Riff in partnership with Oregon State University in June 2020, during the 2018/2019 growing season coffee production hit 24 billion pounds of coffee, with an estimated value of $48 billion. The coffee beans used to make this coffee were harvested from 120 billion pounds of coffee cherries, nearly 100 billion pounds of which was discarded, including 58 billion pounds of nutrient-rich coffee fruit.

Where there is massive industry, there is massive food waste, and there is awareness both internally and externally of the scale of the problem as well as the need to solve it. Luckily, progress is being made to reduce this waste through upcycling.

“The biggest areas of waste in many cases represent the largest opportunities, so we do feel the biggest offenders are being tackled,” says Crone. Of course, upcycling is not easy nor cheap. The technological innovation involved as well as the economies of scale required to reduce production and input costs are some major hurdles. Major companies like AB InBev have the capital to invest in creating value from their own waste streams, but so much of the push is being made by small startups “that might not have the capital for infrastructure and necessary R&D,” says Crone. As a result, these upcycling startups rely on government grants and private investment to push forward.

Additionally, success of these upcycling initiatives is only as good as the consumer awareness and acceptance. One of the biggest challenges for EverGrain, for example, says Hochreiter, is “perception and inertia in the food system.” Getting people to accept new ingredients into their diets can be very challenging, even if the ingredients are based on an ancient grain such as barley. Education is important, and leveraging upcycling as a selling point can be a great way to convince consumers. That’s where groups like the Upcycled Food Association come in.

Increasing Awareness

Many consumers might be practicing upcycling in their personal lives by buying things secondhand or repurposing discarded items to make something new. This allows them to reduce the waste they produce while also being creative and saving money. Therefore, consumers are receptive to seeing upcycled food products in their grocery stores. To some, seeing an upcycled product on the shelf may be an introduction to the concept, increasing awareness among consumers who may not have thought about the environmental impacts of their favorite coffee or chocolate products. However, consumers can also be naturally skeptical of product claims, especially if they notice a trend in the marketplace.

“The Upcycled Certified mark removes the education burden from individual companies, is a powerful tool for brands to convey transparency and credibility to consumers, and unites both companies and consumers behind a vision,” explains Crone. “We know that there can be no confidence in sustainability claims without transparency. Transparency requires product attributes such as clear labeling, certification by trusted third parties, and company attributes like access and trust.”

The Upcycled Food Association’s Upcycled Certified program requires that products meet a minimum threshold of upcycled inputs—namely, 10% for products and 95% for ingredients. These products must also indicate what inputs were upcycled. Transparency is key here.

“We encourage companies and retailers, like they would with any other product, to underscore the sourcing or production story of a particular ingredient or product to grab the consumer’s attention and increase their trust,” says Crone. For added transparency and rigor, the Upcycled Food Association partners with an independent third-party certifying body called Where Food Comes From, which administers the standard’s verification process. Where Food Comes From has worked with other well-known certifications like Organic and Non-GMO, says Crone.

So far, 374 products and ingredients are certified by the Upcycled Food Association. “The Upcycled Certified mark de-risks greenwashing from individual companies, is a powerful tool for brands to convey transparency and credibility to consumers, and unites retailers, companies, their supply chain partners, and consumers behind a vision,” says Crone.


  1. Food Waste: The Big Picture. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Accessed April 20, 2023. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sustainability/food-waste/
  2. Removing Fish From Fish Diet for Tastier, More Sustainable Aquaculture. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. September 29, 2020. Accessed April 20, 2023. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/removing-fish-fish-diet-tastier-more-sustainable-aquaculture#:~:text=The%20ingredients%20often%20come%20from,percentage%20is%20expected%20to%20increase.
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